Psyche and the Seashore

Why do we love—or fear—the ocean?

Published August 4, 2015

Ten years ago, I lived among trees. The world was lush and quiet, populated by deer and wild turkeys, outlined by ferns and running creeks. It sounds idyllic, and in many ways, it was. And then I moved to the California coast. Here, as soon as I get within sensory reach of the ocean—whether it’s to smell the salt air, hear the boom-hiss of breaking waves, or scan out to the distant horizon—a deep tide of ease rises in me, bringing both clarity and contentment.

Not everyone feels this way. For some, the same ricochet of water on sand inspires mild panic; the open water stretches into a yawn of loneliness, not comfort. So what draws so many of us to gaze out over the waves—and sends others to higher ground for the company of conifers or the shelter of steep mountains?

I started thinking about this after reading about a recent series of studies linking people’s personalities to the kinds of landscapes they prefer. Psychologist Shigehiro Oishi worked with groups of students at the University of Virginia (UVA), where he teaches, and surveyed them to see where they would like to go to seek solitude, and where they’d prefer to be when socializing with friends. Three-quarters of the 220-plus students picked the beach for group activity. For quieter retreats, students split more evenly between mountains and ocean.

Oishi also looked at large personality studies and sorted the results geographically: residents of states with the highest mountains and the most mountains tended to be more introverted than those who lived elsewhere. Among the possible explanations, he wondered if geography itself—the sheltered protection of mountains, or the broad, open spaces that you might find at the seashore—could actually cause people to become more extroverted or introverted.

But when he tested the idea on groups of UVA students, he found that his introverted subjects remained reticent no matter whether they were in an open space or a sheltered environment. The same pattern was true of more gregarious individuals; environment did little to change their nature. While his research on the connection between personality and landscape is still in its early stages, he says our personalities may guide us to seek out particular landscapes; perhaps, Oishi told attendees at a psychology meeting this February, “introverts like me choose mountainous places like Charlottesville.”

I’m an introvert, too, but for me the wide-open view of the sea is often more comforting than being in the mountains; the refuge Oishi and others may find there sometimes seems too close and confining. So what might draw me to the ocean, instead? The psychology of introverts seems to cast some light on this. In her book, Quiet, Susan Cain talks about how introverts are particularly attuned to what’s happening around them, and points to research like that of developmental psychologist Jerome Kagan and his colleagues, who’ve looked at how infants react to new things in their environments. The researchers found that babies who were especially responsive to new things—from unfamiliar voices to bursting balloons—were more likely to become quieter, more cautious teenagers. In introverts, the amygdala, the area of the brain that processes emotions, is more sensitive to stimuli, too, so anything new sets off a flush of reactions, from a higher heart rate to more cortisol in the bloodstream. Some introverts—like Oishi—may seek protective seclusion in the mountains as a balm against overstimulation; others—like me—may find it in the steady beat of waves or the restful ombré of blue that blurs the line between sky and sea.

When I asked a group of writers what they thought about the connection between personality and landscape, one confirmed introvert said that maybe she liked open spaces because she could “see the people coming.” For me, this is certainly true—before going down to the beach, I often peer down from the bluff to prepare myself for who I might be meeting there.

In fact, some landscape psychologists believe that having a place from which we can survey our surroundings is a critical feature of the appeal of landscape no matter what our personality, or whether we prefer mountains, oceans, or somewhere in between. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors may have looked for landscapes that combined overlooks or similar vantage points near areas in which they could take shelter, an idea called “prospect and refuge.” And our species may still obtain a sense of security from a landscape that offers both vistas and retreats.

Psychologists are still sifting through ideas about the roots of our attachment to particular landscapes. Does human evolution play a deciding role, or are our childhood experiences more important? In Sweden, researchers found that people preferred the landscapes they grew up in, a finding that was particularly strong among people who lived near the coast. Survey respondents in one study talked about the freedom coming from the coast’s open views, the power of the ocean, its appeal to all five senses, and the deep connection we have to water from our own birth.

My own childhood was spent mostly in hills caked with chaparral in northern California, and among the trees and granite of the Sierra Nevada. But when my dad, another introvert, felt like celebrating, he took us to the beach (so perhaps Oishi’s research seems to align with my own experience more than I’d thought). But this was not the rainbow, towel-tiled patchwork of a convivial beach resort, but white sands draped in kelp, where the gray skies and moist air damped the sound of the waves and of our own voices. Maybe this early memory was enough to give the ocean an enduring power over me.

Sometimes our soulscape grabs us later in life. Tyra Olstad, a geographer affiliated with the State University of New York College at Oneonta, grew up among the trees and lakes of New York, but when she began doing research in wide-open spaces—deserts, prairies—she found her home. The prairie, Olstad thinks, is not too different from the sea. Standing in the middle of a tall grass prairie, she feels as if she’s immersed in water. “You can even feel seasick,” she says. Birds startle and swoop out of the grass in flocks, becoming schools of feathered fish against the sky.

Often, psychologists test people’s landscape preferences by showing photographs of lush trees, of scenes of saguaro, or vistas of empty waves. It may be no wonder, then, that people in these studies tend to gravitate toward green landscapes. Anecdotally, Olstad says, people who live in the rural Great Plains love open vistas, but might not choose a photo of flat fields when asked for their preference, because they aren’t immersed in the landscape, with the scudding clouds and changing light, the variation by hour and day and season. Photos can’t capture the beauty of Olstad’s prairie, or of my chameleon sea—the way that time and light flicker through these landscapes, the dependability of the tides, the seasons. And how these rhythms pair with the unexpectedness of weather, of motion, of the small chaos of waves that tumble over each other, eager brothers bumping shoulders on the race toward shore.

The rhythmic sound of the waves is thought to calm us; when I wake in the night and I catch that distant sound through an open window, I turn over and close my eyes. But not everyone is lulled to sleep this way. When I asked Steve White, a long-distance solo sailor who competed in the 2008 Vendée Globe, a round-the-world race, he said something that surprised me. “To be frank,” he admitted, “the noise of waves breaking on the beach frightens the bejesus out of me, because if you’re on a boat hearing breaking waves, you’re doing something wrong.”

White’s ocean is a different seascape than the one I know. Mine is not the entire watery bolt, but its frayed hem, seen with my toes safely in the sand—or at most, dipping in water a few hundred meters offshore. White has sailed across the Atlantic more times than he can count; his ocean is an endless series of grays from sea to sky, with no coastline or other boats to break his view.

At sea, White can be so immersed in meeting the needs of his boat that he doesn’t often get a chance to take in his surroundings. But when he does, he takes in a few deep breaths—“just from the bottom of your soul … like you’ve never breathed before.” In the open ocean, he’s aware of how insignificant he is. “It’s humbling and enriching and empowering and many, many feelings at once.”

White, who’s planning to sail westward around the globe in 2016, says life offshore is much easier. “You’ve got so much space and room.” Once he gets toward the coast, that’s when he has to be on his game, with boat traffic, reefs and rocks, and the complications that arise from the interface between land and sea.

For some, even standing on the shore—feet far from the deck of an oceangoing boat—is too fraught. Jeff Krieger is a New York-based aquatic therapist who runs a program for people struggling with water phobia. Some of his clients have never learned how to swim, or had an overzealous instructor who pushed them too much, too soon—but the majority seems to come hard-wired for the fear. They start quaking in water up to their knees, or may go to any lengths to avoid water, skipping family trips, even the honeymoon stroll, hand in hand, down a white-sand beach. It’s fascinating, he says, “that we spend nine months in our mother’s womb, in water, and some people come out fearful of water.”

Now as I stand at the bluffs near my home, I try to imagine what it would be like to be overcome with terror. What if this view were overpowering, not because of the stillness, the expansiveness, but because it made my throat seize?

Maybe it’s no surprise that water, and the oceans that hold most of it, taps into our deepest, strongest emotions. The ocean can be both a source of life, and a source of danger. It’s the place life came from, and the place some of us return to at life’s close. Our prospect and our refuge; our past, our future.

If I wake early and walk along the shore, I’ll sometimes see the ocean’s edge as a true refuge; the sea caves beneath the bluff often harbor worn sleeping bags in the shadows. For me, the shelter of the ocean is the view itself, the prospect is what it lets me imagine—that I could keep on going, if only I knew how, all the way to the other side.